University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler last week announced a 1,748-member internal search committee to help choose his next athletic director.
Don’t worry if you weren’t asked to be on it. The invitation is probably still in the mail.
Kaler gave an interesting response to a question about whether the next athletic director should honor existing coaching contracts.
“I think the AD wants to come in eyes wide open,” he said. “… It would be highly unlikely that we’d make a high-level [coaching] change in the short term, given where we are now, but again that would be a conversation with the AD.”
Kaler hopes to hire an AD by July 1, but the school can’t wait that long before making some decision on Don Lucia, the men’s hockey coach who is coming off a disappointing season and has only one season left on his contract.
The long-term future of that position is not a decision for an interim athletic director. If Beth Goetz has the interim label removed at the end of the search process, then it should be her call.
My two-cent suggestion: Add another year to Lucia’s contract, maybe two, with minimal buyout money and similar salary, which would give the incoming athletic director time to determine how he or she wants to proceed.
A college coach operating in the final year of his contract presents real issues, especially in a highly visible sport. It complicates recruiting, hurts morale and basically invites a constant distraction.
Lucia’s program is wounded, not broken. The failure of this season should provide a jolt to Lucia and his players, a figurative kick in the pants. If things don’t improve substantially the next two seasons, then make a change.
Lucia has done wonderful things in 17 seasons here, but he can’t coast to retirement. His program is expected to win at a high level every year. That’s the deal, even if those expectations irk him.
Lucia indicated he will meet with Goetz soon to discuss options. This is a delicate situation because of uncertainty in leadership and the fact that it involves a veteran coach and unhappy fan base.
Despite his success — two national championships, five Frozen Fours — the perception is that Lucia’s program underperforms given its status in college hockey, that he doesn’t get enough out of his blue-chip talent, that his program lacks toughness.
Fair or not, Gophers hockey shouldn’t struggle or miss the NCAA tournament in the court of public opinion. I tend to think criticism of Lucia has been childish at times — so what if he’s not a Minnesota alum? — but longtime loyalists of that program are angry right now.
A permanent athletic director might consider making a change, but the Gophers don’t have that option. That’s where this situation becomes tricky.
An interim AD with only three months guaranteed left on the job should not be asked or allowed to fire a coach and then make a new hire.
By the same token, Goetz shouldn’t be allowed to sign Lucia to a long-term extension without knowing if she will be running the department beyond June.
That’s why a compromise of minor extension with similar salary makes sense.
That requires Lucia to be realistic about his situation, too. His résumé gives him equity, but he’s not in position to ask for the moon considering the current state of things.
It deserves noting that Goetz has been involved in contract decisions with two coaches already. She promoted Tracy Claeys from interim to head football coach after Jerry Kill resigned for health reasons. And she signed baseball coach John Anderson to a five-year extension.
Those cases were different. The timing of Kill’s departure put the school in a tough spot. The familiarity with Claeys and the coaching staff combined with the absence of a full-time AD made that a no-brainer decision. They had no other realistic options.
Anderson’s extension was an easy call, too. He’s an institution in Gophers athletics, no one more respected inside that department. And to be fair, baseball does not carry the same profile and pressure as revenue-generating men’s hockey.
The Gophers find themselves in this position with Lucia because disgraced former athletic director Norwood Teague wasn’t a fan of Lucia and refused to give him a second extension. A disappointing season by the Gophers has compounded the problem.
Now the situation requires some sort of response. A short, bridge extension would give the new athletic director time to settle in before tackling this big-ticket item on a long list of them.